Freud's Death Wish and the Reader

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

Freud says there are two aims, death and life. Later, his pupil named them Thanatos and Eros. The two aims compete. These aims explain our actions. These competing aims explain suicide and war. They explain love and birth. They explain economics and art. These competing aims explain why a smoker smokes knowing the health hazards. They also explain why he quits.

These competing aims also explain the reader and the non-reader.

The reader has conquered the death wish while he reads. He breathes new life into himself and into the writer’s creation. The reader creates instead of destroys.

The non-reader has been defeated by the death wish. The non-reader chooses to kill an author’s creation by never letting it breath within him. Reading is a creative activity.

The choice can become conscious if you’ve been educated. In other words, if you read these words and understand the choice is between death or life then you have a conscious decision to make.

You have read the words and the argument is simple enough. Now, you understand. In the next five minutes, in the next twenty four hours, in the next week, in the next month, in the next year, for the rest of your life, you have a choice to make. Even if you never had the choice to make before, you have it to make now.

This is not semantics. This is a recognition of the battle going on in your mind. You will not win the battle and choose life every time, but since you know what is at stake you will win more often than you did before. Choose life. Read.

Photo by Paul Jarvis.


  1. Chris

    I never thought of reading as a creative activity before. I don’t know why. Often, I felt guilty for neglecting writing and other projects to read (sometimes obsessively), but now I have the perfect defense. Reading is creative!

    1. Read.Learn.Write

      Yeah, I definitely think of it as a form of creation. When you think about it, the writer can write but the work doesn’t really come to life until it’s read by someone other than the writer. Then it has a chance to really react against the intended audience. If the intended audience was just the writer the work should never have been published. It didn’t need to for the process to be complete.

  2. T. Lloyd Reilly

    This is the best post I’ve seen so far, Brandon. The ideal of life and death is a strong indicator of how important reading is. Keep it going!

    1. Read.Learn.Write

      Thanks for the great words of encouragement. They mean a lot, I can’t lie.

  3. Anita

    Reminds me of another great quote, of divine inspiration no less: “In the beginning was the Word…in Him was life…”

  4. Read.Learn.Write

    Interesting association! You’ve given some additional food for thought. I’ll think of this idea as I read the Bible in the future.

  5. Ruth Chambers

    Wonderful post. Brings to mind the importance of sharing, whether an author is sharing his/her written word with readers or as human beings we are sharing with others. I feel sharing is such an important part of life, a function of many levels. When I care about something, I want to share it. When someone dies I miss the sharing.

    I especially like the idea of a reader breathing life into the written word. Another form of sharing.

    1. Read.Learn.Write

      Thank you! It’s definitely true with reading that it takes two to tango.

      I like the idea of sharing as a tie in.

      Sharing is one of those activities that is so powerful for all involved. Sharing books and words all the more so.

  6. Cynthia

    Some of the best stories I know came from non-readers, so even though I want to agree with you generally, I don’t think non-readers choose to kill an author’s creation. These storytellers re-create the story every time it is told. I think solitary reading activities can be creative, but when you hear a story with all the embellishments, the vocal cadence, faulty memory and all – I find myself being more creative just thinking about why the stories told are so compelling. Maybe I have to think about your point some more …

    1. Read.Learn.Write

      I wouldn’t argue that listening to an oral story is not a creative activity. The focus of the post is reading, but I didn’t mean to imply that is the only creative way to experience a story.

      My personal opinion is it’s the best way, but that’s probably beyond the scope of this post. Not to mention, that is very much a personal preference. It would be over-bearing to try to impose that preference on everyone else.

      I also don’t mean to imply that only readers can tell stories. That would beg the question, well then how did the first story ever get told?

      Of the two choices, though, being a reader or being a non-reader, I think being a reader is the one consistent with choosing life or creativity.

      You could make the same argument in the context of oral storytelling by saying, listening to an oral story is more consistent with choosing life or creativity than choosing not to hear the story.

      This analysis gets a little more complicated when, for example, you start to ask, which is more consistent with life, oral storytelling or reading?

      I didn’t set out to compare the two, though. If that’s your point I would expect you could make an extremely compelling argument in favor of the oral tradition and I could make a similarly compelling argument in favor of the written tradition.

      Make sense?

      Very much appreciate the comment. You got me thinking some more about this as well.

  7. 3 Short Thoughts « paulchoiblog

    […] Anyways, I was going to write about how I somehow agree and disagree with that, but I think Freud probably had it down as far I know, because he wasn’t saying all people have a death wish, but that people instead have the […]

  8. ericaligocki

    I’ve always felt reading to be a life-giving process. However, I’ve never been able to put it into words the way that you have. Not only is reading a creative process, but you provided a creative way to look at reading. I also like the biblical quote. I think God created authors with a different mindset than non-authors. Not a better mindset, just a different perspective on life.

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